Teacher's 'Wit' and Wisdom
Margaret Edson, Finding
in Her Sole Play
Special to The Washington Post
about Margaret Edson, widely celebrated playwright, is that she is not
really a playwright. Edson herself has been saying so ever since she
became a celebrated playwright last season, when her drama, "Wit," written
nearly nine years ago, finally took the theater world by storm.
"Wit," about a stern college professor's battle with cancer, is still
running in New York, where it won an armload of awards, including the 1999
Pulitzer Prize for drama. A production opened in Los Angeles last month,
with more to come across the country. HBO is planning a film version. And
Judith Light is starring in the national touring company, which opens this
week at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.
Yet despite all this, Edson, who teaches kindergarten at a public
school in Atlanta, maintains that it is impossible for her to think of
herself as a dramatist.
"I just wrote this one little play," she explains.
This, then, is a story about arguably the most famous kindergarten
teacher in America.
On a cold winter night, Edson, 38, stands erect at the front of a
conference room in a downtown Washington hotel, charming a few hundred
members of the Association of American Colleges and Universities as she
lectures on punctuation. The matching of speaker and topic seems sensible:
In "Wit," a good deal of philosophy hangs on whether a key phrase in one
of John Donne's Holy Sonnets should have a comma or a semicolon. In
advertisements, on programs, even on the published play, the spelling of
the title includes the semicolon: "W;t."
On Edson's cue, Rosalind Jones, one of her former professors at Smith
College, reads from "Wit" with the playwright. Appropriately, Jones plays
E.M. Ashford, a former professor of Vivian Bearing, the drama's main
character. Edson plays Vivian, a cold, intimidating Donne scholar who has
ovarian cancer. Between bouts of what is often brutal (and impersonal,
given Vivian's brusque professional methods) medical treatment, Vivian's
mind flashes back to scenes like the one Edson and Jones read.
"And death shall be no more, comma," argues Jones as Ashford to a
younger Vivian. "Death thou shalt die."
When her role is done, Jones leaves the stage, but Edson keeps reading
her own part; she doesn't want the scene to be interrupted by exit
applause. This is a lecture, not a theater. What matters now is the
The next morning Edson, a Washington native, takes the stage of the
arts center at Sidwell Friends, where she went to high school in the late
1970s. She talks about Derek Anson Jones, a close friend since their days
Four days before this, Edson's triumphant return to her alma mater,
Jones – who directed the New York and touring versions of "Wit" – died of
complications from AIDS. Edson had planned to share the stage with him
this morning. Unhappily, she can't, so she stands before the Sidwell crowd
and remembers her times with Jones: the way he stole the show from her as
Touchstone when she was playing Rosalind in "As You Like It" at Sidwell;
the way he optimistically carried the script of the undiscovered "Wit" in
his backpack for years as he was building his directing career in New
At the end of these sessions (and at the beginnings), Edson gets long,
deeply appreciative ovations. Edson, oddly, stands stock still, impervious
to the acclaim; she looks as if she's waiting for a bus. This is not what
playwrights do. Playwrights bow or smile or wave or blush. Their instinct
for dramatic action demands it.
Edson, on the other hand, merely waits – like a teacher – for the room
to get quiet.
She'd Rather Teach
Margaret Edson wrote "this one little play" in Washington almost nine
years ago. Nothing about her life up till then pointed to dramatic
She grew up across the street from American University; her father, who
died in 1977, wrote for newspapers, and her mother continues her career as
a social worker. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, later of "Saturday Night Live" and
"Seinfeld," lived next door. The two girls would invent dramas with Barbie
dolls or act out fantasies of being college girls.
She dabbled in drama at Sidwell, then went to Smith College, majoring
in Renaissance history. Not finding herself particularly employable after
graduating, she helped a friend move to Indiana, then settled outside Iowa
City (where her sister lived) for a summer, selling hot dogs by day and
working at night in a bar at the end of a dirt road. Then she went to Rome
to live in a French convent for a year.
After Rome, she returned to Washington, landing a job in the cancer
ward of a research hospital. Later she worked in publications at the St.
Francis Center (now the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing), cranking out
In the summer of 1991, Edson quit her position at St. Francis and got a
low-pressure job working in a bike shop near Tenley Circle. In effect, she
was taking the summer off so she could write this one little play that had
been taking shape in her mind, triggered in part by what she had seen of
But she would allow herself only the summer to write. She was enrolled
at Georgetown University for the fall, ready to pursue a master's in
English. She wasn't setting out to become a writer.
"Oh, no," Edson says, horrified by the idea. "That would have been too
dangerous for me."
Why does writing seem more dangerous than –
"Than saying, 'Now I'm going to be a waitress?' I don't know. I haven't
thought about it." She pauses. "Because if you're a waitress, you're doing
something. You're getting up and getting dressed every day and you're part
of the world. And if you're a writer, you're just not good for anything.
You're not in the mix when you're a writer. It just wouldn't do for me to
be a writer."
What she wrote, that one time that she wrote, was rejected from coast
to coast. Finally, in January 1995, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa,
Calif., produced "Wit." Edson says she was surprised at how unsurprising
the experience was: "It happened exactly like it was in my mind, as though
I was whispering to each person what to do. So instead of being astonished
by it, it was . . . correct. That was the most exciting thing – to have it
be exactly as I imagined it, to the tiniest detail, and to have strangers
bringing that about. It was so proper, so correct, that it was thrilling.
I was delirious. And that hasn't gone away."
But she says the production, which won a number of Los Angeles Drama
Critics Awards, did not make her think, "Aha, I'm a playwright."
"Because I was a teacher by then," she says. "By the time it was
produced, I was in my fourth year. I was really into it."
While she was completing her master's at Georgetown, Edson had begun
teaching English as a second language through her church, St. Margaret's
Episcopal on Connecticut Avenue.
"I started liking my tutoring more and more," she recalls, "and feeling
less and less comfortable in the academy. So at the end of that year, it
was clear to me that I wanted to be in the elementary classroom."
She launches into a topic that genuinely excites her: the alternative
certification plan started by the D.C. school system eight years ago. She
was in the inaugural group of the program, which allows promising people
from other professions to begin teaching without first wading through the
certification process, which Edson says takes at least a year (full time)
to complete. Instead, they start teaching right away, taking certification
classes at the same time.
"In inner-city schools," Edson says, "there's about a 40 percent exit
rate in the first three years for teachers. Alternative certification
programs have a much higher retention rate because people go into it
knowing more about it. They're not 21. We were older and sadder and wiser,
and had had some kind of experience in the classroom. So I taught ESL for
five years, and I never could have done it without this program. It was
really the big break of my life."
It was Jones, whose years of study and dues-paying were beginning to
yield fruit in and around New York in the mid-1990s, who finally got "Wit"
produced on the East Coast. Artistic Director Doug Hughes agreed to let
Jones direct it at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., where it
opened in October 1997. The play had been rejected for two years even
after its success at South Coast Rep. Edson ticks off the reasons listed
in her rejection letters: "cast size, subject, too much talk, too
academic, too haughty, too unsure of itself, whether it was funny or sad.
. . . Now people are scratching their heads about it. But it was
The script was cut by an hour at South Coast by Edson (who hated the
cuts at the time), dramaturge Jerry Patch and director Martin Benson. "The
effect it has now, especially in Derek's production, is of this very
fast-swerving drive," she says. "You're brought very quickly over to
laughing and then ripped right back into something harrowing – very
shocking, in fact. And it happens so quickly and smoothly in his
production that it makes me seem like I really know what I'm doing." She
There is a thick streak of redemption running through "Wit" (and made
abundantly clear in its final image) as Vivian Bearing comes to terms with
her tough personality, her illness, her isolation and the implications of
Donne's poetry. Edson, a Christian, says it's fair to say that she has
written a Christian – though certainly not proselytizing – play, yet it is
seldom described that way.
"And that's very interesting to me. To me, it's obvious. Duh."
Edson has said repeatedly – for she is invariably asked – that she will
not write again until she feels she has something else to say. "If 'Wit'
works, it's 'cause it's the one thing that I had in my heart," she
insists. "And I'm not going to go and try to crank that up again."
Of course, the pressure of writing a follow-up to "Wit" would be enough
to intimidate even more experienced writers.
"I don't think that's what's keeping her from doing it," says Linda
Merrill, Edson's longtime partner, by phone from Atlanta. (Merrill, who
wrote a number of scholarly art books while at the Freer Gallery for 13
years, is now curator of American art at Atlanta's High Museum of Art.)
"She is very wrapped up in her other life, which is her life as a
kindergarten teacher. That occupies so much of her thinking and her energy
that she doesn't have a lot left over for anything else. So the rest of
this is something that's going on somewhere else."
Edson says, "The job I have now, 'people person' doesn't even begin to
describe it. I'm with my students every minute of the day – lunch,
everything. So the isolated languor of the writer is just really not part
of my world." She laughs again, and you can practically hear the
relentlessly inquisitive voices of 5-year-olds buzzing in her ear.
Because she has achieved a degree of fame and fortune – and possibly
because of the scholarly tone of her play – it confounds people that Edson
continues to teach kindergarten. She got a hero's applause, for instance,
from the university crowd when she was introduced as the toast of American
theater and a public schoolteacher.
"It's a government job," she says later, rolling her eyes in a neat
summation of the drab hassles implied by the phrase. "There's nothing
heroic about it."
Still, teaching, given her circumstances, strikes people as a heroic
Edson isn't buying it. "Ms. Rivers in the room next door has made the
same choice," she says flatly. "Not out of the same number of options. But
all my colleagues are doing the same thing I'm doing. People who know me
slightly, or who have maybe read about me or heard about me, find it hard
to understand. But to people who know me better, it makes perfect sense.
They know the ways that I'm . . . odd."
"She loves to draw, for instance," says Merrill, who has known Edson
for 20 years dating back to their days at Smith, "but she's not very good
at it. They're funny little pictures, so they're just right for
kindergartners. She's an excellent mimic – in fact, she used to take mime
classes and she can imitate animals in amazing ways. And that's a skill
that you wouldn't think she'd have occasion to use.
"Writing is a lonely profession," Merrill adds, "and it was hard for
her to write the play. She likes having the immediate response from her
students. And if there's something about it that isn't working, she can
change it immediately. Whereas writing a play is a long, drawn-out
process, and it's a long time before you know whether you've been
Add to that the fact that Edson – a private school product – appears to
be one of public education's evangelicals. To be in a public school is
"critical" for her, she says. "Completely. The school where I teach is a
Title One, free lunch/free breakfast school. My students are people who
would be . . . well-served by good education." Her voice is very soft now;
she is deeply serious. "I feel very clear about what I'm doing. I'm
perfectly sure of the positive impact of what I'm doing. And I'm the only
person I know who can say that. Except for the people down the hall, Ms.
Rivers next door."
Yet once upon a time she wrote a play, and it became a very big hit. .
Edson comes up with an allegory to explain it.
"A friend of ours, in his garden, decided to build a shed. He'd never
built anything, and he just got this idea that he was going to build this
shed. And so he got all these books and plans, and he poured a foundation.
For somebody who'd never built anything to build such a shed was
incredible. He worked for the government, came home from work, and worked
on this shed. And this was his . . . shed. And I was working on my play.
We had the same spirit: that whatever else happens, I'm makin' my
"So now," Edson concludes, "he has his shed. And I have my play."
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28 January 2011